The false prince, p.53
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       The False Prince, p.53
 

         Part #1 of The Ascendance Trilogy series by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Page 53

 

  It was a circlet of gold, with rubies set at the base of every arch, and was trimmed in braided gold bands. The crown had been made for me to grow into, so I suspected it would fit better now than it used to. It was in perfect condition, other than a dent I’d created when I fell from a tree once while wearing it.

  “The pirates rescued this from the ship before it sank,” Conner said. “They presented it to me as proof of Jaron’s death. ”

  I’d left the crown behind before I snuck off the ship. I had intended it as a symbol of my having abandoned the royal family forever.

  “Face the mirror,” Conner said.

  I obeyed, and watched as he set the crown on my head. The weight of it resurrected a flood of memories for me. As of that moment, I was the prince again. And soon the entire country would know it.

  Conner’s plan was for Cregan to drive him and me directly to the castle in time for the announcement. I argued that Tobias, Roden, and Imogen should come with us, but Conner expressly forbade it. So I nodded at Imogen, and then shook hands with Roden.

  “It’s not too late to back out. ” Roden’s grip was powerful. “You never wanted this. ”

  “No, I never did. ” We had no disagreement there. “But this is my future, not yours. ”

  A flash of anger crossed Roden’s face, but he backed off while I shook hands with Tobias.

  “I think you’re supposed to be the king,” Tobias said, smiling. “The stars are shining for you tonight. ”

  He must have felt the note I placed in his palm when we shook hands, and he hid it well when we pulled our hands apart.

  The ride to the castle was very quiet between Conner and me. He had started our ride by trying to quiz me on any last-minute details. I assured him that I knew everything I had to know, and told him to let me have my silence.

  I watched the castle rise into view as we approached. I hadn’t been there in four years, and when I left, I had never expected to see it again. It was one of the younger castles in the surrounding region and, as such, had borrowed heavily from other countries’ architecture. It was built of the large granite blocks from the mountains of Mendenwal and used the round, heavily decorated turrets of Bymar rather than the plain and square turrets common elsewhere. Like Gelyn’s architecture, the heart of the castle was tall and layered, while its wings were long and square. And small ledges extended beneath the windows. To the people of Carthya, it was the center of their government, a symbol of the king’s power, and a sign of the prosperity we had always enjoyed. To me, it was home.

  However, it quickly became apparent that we were not the only ones trying to get through the gates. A dozen carriages were ahead of us in line. One by one, a castle guard spoke to someone in the carriage at the front of the line. A few got through, but most were turned away.

  Conner leaned his head out the door and signaled to a carriage that had been refused entrance. “What’s happening?” he asked the occupant.

  “Can’t say exactly. Whatever I said to the guard, though, he waved us away. Can you imagine such rude treatment? I happen to have the long-lost son of Carthya, Prince Jaron, with me!”

  I started to lean forward to get a look at him myself, but Conner pressed me back into my seat.

  “Do all these carriages hold the missing prince?” Conner asked.

  “There are several frauds, I’m afraid. Several carriages contain nobles invited to the castle to greet whatever king is named tonight, and they are allowed through. But my boy, er, the prince, is with me, so they have chosen poorly. ”

  “Let us hope the correct boy is crowned tonight,” Conner said, and then wished him well as our carriage moved forward. When we were alone again, Conner added, “His boy looked nothing like Prince Jaron. The guards must be screening for possibilities here at the gate, letting only the most probable candidates through. Don’t worry, Sage, your resemblance is close enough to get us through. ”

  I wasn’t worried.

  But when we reached the gate, Conner learned the truth about the screenings.

  The guard looked at me and arched an eyebrow. At least he was impressed. “Who is this?” he asked Conner.

  “Prince Jaron of Carthya, as you can plainly see. He must be presented at court before a new king is named. ”

  “I’ve seen many Prince Jarons tonight,” the guard said. “Have you anything else to say?”

  This was a request for a code word. It was an old tradition amongst the royal family to have a code word in the event that an impostor ever tried to enter the castle, or if we had to enter the castle while in disguise. The guards at the gates of the castle were the only other ones who knew the code word even existed. If Conner had known the code, he would have asked if the queen planned to wear green at the dinner tonight, because it was the only color he had brought to match her dress. At least, that had been the code four years ago.

  All Conner could do was shake his head.

  “I’m sorry,” the guard said. “You may not enter the castle tonight. ”

  “But I’m Bevin Conner. One of the twenty regents. ”

  “Then what I meant to say is that you may enter. ” The guard flashed a glare at me. “The boy with you may not. ”

  “He is Prince Jaron. ”

  “They all are. ”

  Conner yelled at Cregan to turn our carriage around. “Fools!” Conner hissed, swatting at the carriage door with his hat. “Are we defeated so easily?”

  I leaned back in my seat. “There’s a secret way into the castle. ”

  Conner stopped his swatting. “What? How do you know?”

  “I’ve used it. ”

  “You’ve been inside the castle? Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “You never asked. There’s a river that flows beneath the kitchen. As food is prepared, the garbage is dumped into the water and the river carries it away. The river is gated, but there is a key so that the gate can occasionally be cleared of larger obstructions. ”

  “And you have a key?”

  I pulled a pin from my jacket. Imogen hadn’t felt me take it from her hair the night before. “I can pick the lock. ”

  Conner smiled, impressed with what he thought was my ingenuity. In fact, I’d suspected all along it might come to this. Thus, the pin.

  Conner’s face fell as he further considered my suggestion. “We shall be filthy if we go that route, unfit to enter the throne room. ”

  “That guard just now said you could enter through the gate. I can enter through the kitchen. ”

  Conner shook his head. “Absolutely not. We must stay together. ”

  Which, unfortunately, I also suspected he would say. So I shrugged it off and said, “We’ll be fine on this route. There’s a dirt path to the side of the river, wide enough that we can easily walk there single file. It will lead us to a door into the kitchen. It’s never guarded, but we’ll need help to restrain the kitchen servants while you and I continue on into the castle. ”

  “Mott, Tobias, and Roden. ” Conner’s eyes narrowed. “Did you know this would happen? Is that why —”

  “I brought them so you wouldn’t kill them. There’s one other condition. I don’t want Cregan coming with us. Order him to stay back. ”